Monday, 29 October 2012

Avalanches - Human Factors

From Back Country Access - Bruce Edgerly


Here’s Part 5 in our series on ISSW 2012, the International Snow Science Workshop, held last month in Anchorage, AK.
ISSW 2012
What lies ahead in the world of snow safety and avalanche education? Sounds like a heavy question, doesn’t it? We tried to address this question at the 2012 ISSW (International Snow Science Workshop) last month in Anchorage, AK. BCA vice president Bruce Edgerly presented, “Talking the talk: Human factors, group communication and the future of snow safety.”
As you can guess from the title, we think the future of snow safety lies in “human factors.” And we’re not the only ones. This area is where all the energy is right now at the leading edge of the avalanche industry. The idea is that having all the right equipment, training, and experience still isn’t enough to keep you out of an avalanche. There are a myriad of human factors that influence even the most experienced pros in the field, including peer pressure, competition, status, scarcity, goal-setting, and communication. These factors are often cited when seasoned experts end up in avalanches.
Edgerly summarized what he called the “evolution of avalanche rescue.” Up until about 30 years ago, rescue was focused on organized rescue: search and rescue by members outside that of the victim, using search dogs and organized probe lines. This was followed by the adoption of companion rescue and the use of beacons, probes and shovels to perform rescues within your own group. This has evolved into the era of self rescue, with the rapidly increasing use of avalanche airbags to keep yourself from getting buried. Edgerly said that, ideally, the next phase in this evolution would be “non-rescue,” where education and prevention drive down the number of fatalities. He said he thought the biggest opportunities for achieving this was through attacking the human factors and communication issues that so often result in modern avalanche fatalities.
Edge presented the paper with support from co-author Paul Baugher, the patrol director at Crystal Mountain, with case studies provided by Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster/statistician Spencer Logan. As examples, they illustrated five avalanche fatalities in Colorado and two snow immersion fatalities in Washington and California that were directly related to lost verbal communication between individuals in the group. For details, read their ISSW paper on our research page.
In each of these cases, the skiers, snowboarders, or snowmobilers involved lost sight of each other and weren’t able to establish verbal contact. This resulted in one person being unaware the other was buried, injured, or stuck in a tree well. Establishing verbal contact in each of these cases most likely would have prevented the fatality.
What was Edgerly’s conclusion? That backcountry riding has changed a lot over the past ten years and “good partnering” has become more difficult. Skiers and snowboarders are riding bigger lines, more technical terrain, and not stopping as often to regroup and maintain contact. Combine this with an over-reliance on cell phones–and the resulting false sense of security–and you’ve got an epidemic of poor “real-time communication.” He lauded AIARE (American Institute of Avalanche  Research and Education) and the CAA (Canadian Avalanche Association) for including progressive modules on group communication in their training curriculums. But he said there is still a technical gap that is not being filled “to address the issue of lost verbal contact when good partnering fails.” He called cell phones impractical in the backcountry winter environment and he called Talkabout-style two-way radios a great first step, but marginal with respect to their user interface and reliability in winter conditions.
 “So what does that mean? How are you going to improve this?” somebody asked from the audience.
 “You’ll see that human factors and communication will become a big part of our education program over the next few years,” Edgerly responded. “We think this is the next great opportunity for saving lives.”

I have just posted this file from Bruce Edgerly VP of Back Country Access which he presented at ISSW 2012 Alaska.  I may be biased but I tend to like the simple approach BCA take to education and they bring a lot to the table, this paper being no exception in my opinion. As mentioned in the paper we have moved forward from good organised rescue (often too late) to the immediate companion rescue which has a bigger impact on reducing morbidity and mortality. The use of airbags will also surely have in impact but I think we might be a long way from these becoming commonplace for all but the serious freerider and alpine touring party. European guides are more often now equipping clients (multiple burials on the uphill part of a tour being unfortunately frequent)with ABS rucksacks.

Phone apps are appearing and could be a step backwards in education as some misguided folks sadly believe these are as effective as a Beacon. While the innovators may mean well, at the end of the day they want to make some money and may be quite ignorant of the reality of avalanche recovery where pinpoint
accuracy is everything to survival and the ultimate airway opening device is a shovel.

Two avlx app examples below

The latter app is undergoing some testing by the Chamonix PHGM/CRS but rightly the rescuers are keen to point out its in early stages and no substitute for beacon, shovel and probe. Given the terrain around Europes highest mountain, narrowing down the search area to even +/- 100m could help narrow down a search area for body recovery saving time. But that's a location app not an avlx app.

I have briefly tested the SnowWhere app ( and its basically just a glorified GPS location device. Accurate to +/- 10 meteres at best, which realistically in a circle is about 300 sq/meters which is a lot of probing, maybe 300+ holes.

Stay Safe

Davy Gunn

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